Ghosts in the Media
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Atheists and Guns

I'm intrigued to learn that Sam Harris is a gun nut. Not just me, there's been a lot of comment about it (see this excellent piece by the Guardian's Andrew Brown). His passionate defence of gun ownership reads like a PR piece for the National Rifle Association, and his solution to schools killings is the same as theirs - to post armed guards in schools. He demands that people show 'greater responsibility' in dealing with public violence, which for him means encouraging gun ownership.

Harris's high-profile opposition to Islam potentially makes him a target, so he has an excuse for taking drastic precautions. But he candidly admits that he's always loved guns, and can't understand why other people don't see the need for them. He owns guns and trains with them regularly, with the ever-present worry that his home may be invaded by gunmen who he needs to be ready to deal with.

Most of my friends do not own guns and never will. When asked to consider the possibility of keeping firearms for protection, they worry that the mere presence of them in their homes would put themselves and their families in danger. Can't a gun go off by accident? Wouldn't it be more likely to be used against them in an altercation with a criminal? I am surrounded by otherwise intelligent people who imagine that the ability to dial 911 is all the protection against violence a sane person ever needs.

Like most gun owners, he adds, he understands the 'ethical importance' of guns and cannot honestly wish for a world without them.

Ethical importance? This is baffling to Europeans, as it must be for many Americans as well. We take the need for strict gun control absolutely for granted - it just isn't an issue. The dangers arising from such lethal weapons being kept in homes are surely too obvious to need stating. As for their uses in fending off an attack, we aren't so naïve as to assume that coppers will magically show up in seconds, wrestle the weapon from the mugger's hands and march him off to jail. But we do think that strong gun laws minimise the likelihood of our ever being in that situation in the first place.

The arguments on both sides have been fully aired since the recent Sandy Hook school shooting, so I won't add to them (except to mention that I don't in the least accept the equivalence Harris proposes between deaths caused by guns and the far greater number caused by the infections that allegedly result from doctors and nurses not washing their hands). What interests me here is the idea of such notions being supported by a leading atheist and an admired rationalist thinker.

The religions which Harris so heartily despises - in their teachings if not in their practice - hold in common an aversion to aggression and violence. In Christianity it's about turning the other cheek, not even trying to resist attack. In Asian philosophies to inflict physical harm upon someone else is to incur karmic debts. In real life this is quite impractical, however, and like most people I guess I'm somewhere in the middle: if attacked, I'm sure I'd defend myself, and might even degenerate into a homicidal frenzy if I saw family members being harmed. But I dread to think what would the consequence would be in such cases if I happened to carry a gun, or could easily grab it from a drawer. It would make it so much worse of a disaster. And I don't think one has to be religious to be concerned about having the death or maiming of a fellow-human on one's conscience.

If morality in a spiritual perspective is about not playing the violence game, it should perhaps not be a surprise that a convinced atheist allows himself to flirt with it, in the name of some supposedly more obvious ethic. (This, as I understand it, is that gun ownership makes it possible for upstanding citizens to respond to aggression on their helpless neighbours, whereas the lack of them makes them passive wimps.) All the more so if - as is so strongly the case with Harris - his idea of religion is coloured by its historical tendency to violence, to the extent that its underlying moral message is rather overshadowed. If he considers that morality is a utilitarian, human invention - and that there is no future state, and no karmic debt - then he is free to make his own decisions about how he makes himself secure.

But this is a highly individualistic position, and not one that is generally shared by other atheists (see this sensible piece defending gun control by a colleague of Richard Dawkins.) It's hard to escape the sense that Harris's moralising is at least partly driven by a deep fascination with the object of the gun itself and the unnatural power that its ownership confers - at least that's how American gun worship looks to Europeans. It utterly fails to acknowledge the deeply destablising effect of gun ownership on human society, one that far outweighs the threat from knives and other potential weapons.

It also attests to a deep personal paranoia. As I say, Harris would have special reasons for being afraid, but this seems to be a general undercurrent in American, typically rightwing thinking, one that is purely emotive. Somehow that's all of a piece with his angry tirades against Islam. Harris is famous as a rationalist, and I've always admired his clarity, passion and candour. But his insistence that a society becomes more ethical and secure by making guns more accessible is not obviously the thinking of a rational person.


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Interesting article. You're right that American gun-toting baffles Europeans. I got an insight into it the other day - someone who goes to the U.S. frequently said they're morbidly afraid of their ethnic minorities. Can any American confirm or deny this?

Gun control is probably the clearest example of the different worldviews between Americans and Europeans.

The right to bear arms (2nd Amendment) was written into the U.S. Constitution so that the citizenry would be able to mount an armed rebellion against a tyrannical government. Justification because of the need for self defence and hunting would not have even crossed the Founding Fathers minds - those needs were a given during the era when the Constitution was being written. Armed conflict was a way of life for those folks.

To quote Thomas Jefferson:
"I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."
"Periodic revolution, at least once every 20 years, is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government."

Don't know how relevant that mentality is to this day and age, but private gun ownership is built into the Constitution. Although I don't own any guns myself, I honestly believe that a fiercely violent conflict would erupt if the government were to try to disarm the entire American population. It's just the way it is.

"his solution to schools killings is the same as theirs - to post armed guards in schools"

Also the same solution proposed and employed by Bill Clinton.

Would you place a gun in the hands of this man?

(And I don't mean Piers Morgan.) ;)

The farther to the political/religious Right one goes, at least in the U.S., the more pervasive and profound the paranoia becomes, frequently so bizarre that it would be hilarious if it weren't so scary. I find it puzzling that a rationalist can be so compartmentalized, operating clearly in some aspects of life while at the same time that rationality is obliterated by the emotional storms of power and control on the gun issue! (See not only Harris but the Alex Jones clip mentioned by Julie as example.)

"Harris's high-profile opposition to Islam potentially makes him a target, so he has an excuse for taking drastic precautions."

That makes it sound like every Muslim is a crazed nut who wants Harris dead. That's not what you meant, is it?

No not all. I meant that it makes him vulnerable to the crazies. Was thinking of what happened to the Dutch film-maker Van Gogh ...

My understanding is (and I am probably wrong here) that the 2nd amendment right was "for the purpose of forming a militia". I guess this was to avoid having a standing army? As the US seems to have a standing army now, presumably there is no need for militias? If this is true it looks like redundant legislation doesn't it?

My understanding is (and I am probably wrong here) that the 2nd amendment right was "for the purpose of forming a militia". I guess this was to avoid having a standing army? As the US seems to have a standing army now, presumably there is no need for militias? If this is true it looks like redundant legislation doesn't it? - Paul

It can be argued that over time the definition of, and need for a 'militia' has changed dramatically. That definition and need may change even more in the future, who knows?
There's the rub. It's all a matter of interpretation, and the current (conservative leaning) Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the personal use interpretation.

Contrary to popular belief, the Posse Comitatus Act (Google it) does not prohibit the standing U.S. Army from providing local law enforcement. That being said, it's hard for me to imagine our Army turning on its own citizens, and even if it did, the best publicly available assault rifles would look like pop guns to the Army's high tech artillery. What would a bunch of "well intended" vigilante groups be able to do? A violent rebellion in the U.S. would be like Syria on steroids, only it would be over in a few weeks.

I brought up the Constitutionally justified reason for personal handgun ownership to point out the specific reason why the U.S. is engaged in a different argument than say, the Europeans. It's a quaint sounding argument, but it's real. Interestingly, the justification touted most often by the N.R.A. is self-defence, probably because the Constitutional argument sounds so quaint. And in a terrorism infested world, it does have a certain edge to it.

With regard to American fear of minorities, this only holds true in some Midwest and east coast areas. Not everywhere.

Certainly in the West, where minorities comprise a very substantial part of the population and have been around since before many areas became states, it is much less true.

The gun nuts are a lot like the skeptics. No amount of science will deter them. What the science shows should be obvious to anyone: Guns used against humans are primarily for suicide and secondarily against loved ones and relatives and by accident.

The fantasy of fending off attackers with your gun is not borne out by reality. Home invasions, where the attacker deliberately breaks into an occupied home, are very rare.

When you remove Asian on Asian crime from this equations, which accounts for 99% of all home invasions, it becomes even more absurd.
(Asian immigrants tend not to trust banks and keep their wealth hidden in their home. The attackers (also Asian) will hold them at gunpoint to find out where the wealth is hidden.)

Robert, great to see you back! I fully agree with you. There are many Americans who can't understand the deep attachment to guns, especially guns whose purpose is to shoot other people. It seems very strange that we would want to fire a lump of metal at high velocity into another person's body.

As for Harris, he really lost it for me with his response to Eben Alexander. I had held him apart as the open-minded, spiritually-minded, open-to-psi, meditating atheist. I didn't take him off that pedestal; he jumped off it all by himself with his comments in regard to Alexander.

Hi Robert, Yes Harris's response to Alexander was quite excitable, although to be fair, that Newsweek article must have been quite provoking to someone of his persuasion, and he did make some good points. Like you I've had some respect for him in the past. That said, I'm becoming ever less willing to take him at his word about being open-minded.

Robert a lot of people don't want anything to do with guns simply because they're aware of those rare moments when its possible to enter into a cold or hot rage when if a gun were to hand it's perfectly possible to imagine onself ending the dispute with a bullet.

They're also aware though once the bullet's on its way one may spend the rest of one's life deeply regretting or even being haunted by what happens next.

Maybe Sam Harris knows for a fact owning a gun somehow puts one into a permanent zen-like state in which one never loses one's temper or never regrets shooting someone but if he does then he ought to pass on the secret how that's possible to all those police officers who have to undergo counselling because they can't come to terms with the fatc they've shot someone or indeed those military personnel who hang themselves for much the same reason.

One of many examples of how strident the rhetoric gets in certain quarters:

Yep, that's a petition on the official White House web site. It won't go anywhere, but it illustrates how hot the debate can get. *sigh*

A little late to this thread...... I am an American and I am a gun owner. Twice in civilian life I have thawrted a serious threat to my person by using a gun. When I lived down by the US/Mexico border I carried a .357 magnum on my person most of the time.

Yes. The Consitution protects my right to own a gun for self defense and, yes, I will make some serious protest if someone attempts to curtail that right.

Some Americans live in relatively safe communities and can ignore danger from others without significant peril. Others live elsewhere and don't have that luxury. America is really a patchwork quilt of cultures. Someone living in the suburbs of an North East coastal city really has little in common, culturally, with someone living in, say, the South or South West of the country. Different worlds.

As for Europeans, well some of look at you guys as see a bunch of socialist collectivists and we note your propensity for burning your cities doewn and killing off entire generations of your young every several decades or so - though I note that after the US saved you (again) and occupied and help rebuild that which you destroyed, your mass murderous tendencies have toned down - so far - until the next dictator/emperor/marxist inspires some kind of violent social upheaval.

For Americans a gun is not just a gun. It is a symbol that the individual is empowered with the same fatal coercive power as the state. Europeans, being accustomed to subjugation by kings, emperors, etc, do not understand. Europeans are happy to surrender themselves to the collective; Americans not so much. The gun is a symbol of the ability to resist. Our founders believed in its meaning and use, if necessary.

Is it silly to think that men with guns could fight off a modern army determined to oppress them? I don't know. I'd say that from the jungles of Vietnam to the mountain of Afghanistan, history says it's possible.

"your mass murderous tendencies have toned down - so far - until the next dictator/emperor/marxist inspires some kind of violent social upheaval."

It can't happen now, thanks to the socialist collective we call the "European Community".
However, I see the yanks are still sending troops all over the world to make sure their oil keeps flowing.

"However, I see the yanks are still sending troops all over the world to make sure their oil keeps flowing."

Sure - and not a policy I agree with, but the brits are doing it too - as are the French in Mali, recently.

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